Shiraz to Yazd (26 September 2015)
It was a long road trip that I got out of bed for that morning. I had to endure an annoying headache for much the day before from the lack of sleep and then unexpectedly suffered a bout of motion sickness in the evening when I was heading to dinner. Luckily I did manage to get some sleep that night and was determined to have a good healthy day.
Instead of waiting at the hotel, I decided to head back to the Quran Gate area just outside for a quick morning walk. It was a lovely morning and the sky was beautifully blue. No one should be indoors on a day like this. Although it was Saturday the city buzzed as if it were Monday. In fact it was Monday in Iran. I later learnt that the Iranian weekend was on Thursday and Friday.
It was however quiet around the gate unfortunately. Everyone must be either at work getting to work. The relative peace though got me fully appreciating finally that I was in Iran. And I was in Shiraz that morning, the city that gave its name to wine although ironically the whole country is officially strictly dry.
There was still one last stop in Shiraz that the group had to make. We were supposed to visit the Nasir-ol-Molk Mosque the day before but it was Friday and closed to visits. This was just as well for us since we could not have made it to the mosque before dusk and we really needed a good sun to enjoy the mosque.
The prayer hall of the Qajar era Nasir-ol-Molk Mosque must surely be the reason people came to visit. The patterned mainly pink tiles in the hall were beautiful, and the coloured glass windows were simply eye-catching. The sun shone through the windows and cast multi-coloured light into the hall. It was all really stunning. The colours apparently also served a more practical purpose of repelling insects, e.g. blue repelled flies (according to N). It was surely a mosque built to impress.
It was at the Nasir-ol-Molk that I learnt something about the people who were travelling with me. Overall they seemed to be much more interested in taking photographs than what N had to say about each sight. Of course the agency made things very convenient for us by providing transmitters so that we could hear N without having to be next to her all the time. But I doubt that the avid photographers heard much of what N said. AH and his wife TH, the couple from Hong Kong, for example were very interested in getting artistic studio quality photos of TH at every sight. But AH was also a curious person who wanted to know all about the things he had seen. He therefore frequently had to ask other people about what N had said, if not N herself.
I could sense impatience in N’s voice at one point because most of us seemed to ignore her when she had asked more than once for everyone to follow her to another part of the mosque. That was after the more than ten minutes that she had given us for photos in the prayer hall.
After a heap of photos, mostly unnecessary, we finally made it out of the mosque to start on our road trip to Yazd. Before we left Shiraz however, N made a stop at a local fruit shop to get some Shirazi lemons for everyone. It did sound to me like the Iranians were very proud of their lemons and attributed many healing properties to them. The ones from Shiraz were apparently the best. As the day was going to be very hot and dry, N advised us to squeeze some lemon juice into our water for some boost to our immunity.
The highlight of our little tour of Iran started early. It was only our second day after all. But we were taken to Persepolis this morning.
Grand staircase up the terrace with the mountain and door to heaven motif and gentle steps to allow dignified climbing
Persepolis was the ceremonial capital of the Achaemenid kings. It was founded in the 6th century BC to be used as a symbol of Persian greatness and power and the celebration of events such as Nowruz the Persian new year. The great stone buildings looked monumental. The thirteen metre high terrace on which all the monumental buildings stood did much to enhance the imposing stature of the whole site. Indeed it must be said that despite the ruinous nature of the site today, it is not difficult to imagine what effect it must have had on someone in those days who saw the place for the first time.
Indeed the site made quite a visual impact on us. Even before ascending the steps onto the terrace, K had turned to me and gushed, “Fancy being at Persepolis!”
K, an enthusiastic lady from Singapore waiting for retirement next year, was travelling with her husband, C. Before meeting us for the group tour the couple had already spent about three days in Iran exploring some other ancient sites with N. By the end of our first day in Iran, the rest of the group had already heard about her experiences in some detail at least twice. If we had not known about those before, we do now.
Construction on Persepolis continued until the fall of the Achaemenid dynasty in the 4th century BC when Alexander had the city burnt down. While Alexander is frequently called “the Great” in much of the world, in Iran he is known simply as Alexander.
The site is not all ruins however. There is a modern museum showcasing some finds from the area. This was built in the early 20th century on what, if what I had read was correct, used to be the Achaemenid harem. One might think that Persepolis was all stone but in fact large cedar columns were also used to prop the huge buildings up.
The name “Persepolis” is actually Greek and means “Persian City”. The ancient Persians however called it Parsa. Nowadays, the site is known locally as Takht-e Jamshid.
I must say that I had set my expectations rather high this morning. But even though it was not quite Angkor (which was built centuries later), Persepolis did give me a thrill. If anyone were to ask me right now what my favourite site in Iran was, from among all that I had managed to see, I would not hesitate to point to this one.
After lunch we were taken to the nearby site of Naqsh-e Rostam. This is the final resting place of four Achaemenid kings.
The four tombs were cut into the face of a rocky hill. From left to right they are the tombs of Darius II, Artaxerxes I, Darius I and Xerxes II.
The later Sassanians also left their mark around the tombs. There are several rock reliefs depicting Sassanid kings often in proud moments they want the world to know about and remember.
Some believe the Ka’ba-ye Zartosht, or Cube of Zoroaster, to be an ancient temple dedicated to Anahita, the ancient Iranian goddess of water.
I read that some scholars today believe the cube-like structure to actually be a royal tomb instead. I suppose it might have been easier to find out what it was if Alexander and his boys had not looted the necropolis.
We visited another ancient Achaemenid capital in the late afternoon. This was ancient Pasargadae, capital of Cyrus the Great, and pre-dates Persepolis. It is most famous today for the structure that is believed to be Cyrus’ tomb.
For someone who was called “the Great”, and judging from the apparent propensity of kings of that era to make things big and ostentatious, I was surprised that Cyrus’ tomb looked so simple. N told me that the tomb had been quite showy until Alexander and his men showed up.
The tomb was not destroyed when the Arabs came knocking because of a clever ruse. The locals told the marauders that this was in fact the tomb of Solomon’s mother. Since this was supposedly the final resting place of the mother of an important man in Islam, the marauders left it alone. The tomb even became a pilgrimage site after that although homage was paid to the wrong person.
There are of course other remains to see. Near Cyrus’ tomb is a caravanserai.
There were also the remains of a building that looked very much like the Cube of Zoroaster in Naqsh-e Rostam. Scholars are still unsure what it was. It might have been an Anahita temple although some people believe that it was a tomb.
The structure is known as the Zendan-e Soleyman or Solomon’s Prison, a name totally unrelated to its non-Muslim past.
The Tall-e Takht was a fort situated on a hill. All that remains today is a stone terrace reminiscent of Persepolis.
The road trip took far longer than I had expected. We were supposed to make a stop to see a 4,000 year old cypress tree and I had initially thought that this had been cancelled when the sky became completely dark. But we did reach the village of Abarqu and the garden in which the ancient tree stood. By then however the garden had closed and the stopover became a toilet break. We had to satisfy ourselves by peering at the tree in the dark through breaks in the surrounding wall.
What made the experience interesting for me however were two local boys coming up to us to practice their English. I wish we could have more time for them.
I seemed destined to be plagued by motion sickness on this trip. By the time I got to the cypress tree I felt like I was going to retch at anytime. The short stop unfortunately did nothing to calm my dizzy head and stop that annoying nausea. It took again like forever before we finally reached the hotel in Yazd. I was only too glad to finally drag myself up to the suite I was given and into bed, without dinner.